It's all Greek to me

Food - Bee Wilson in search of real Hellenic cuisine

Grey mullet roe; tender vine leaves; astringent tzatziki; veal shin so yielding you could cut it with a spoon; saffron-coloured fish soup with boiled potatoes; succulent young kid; cuttlefish stifado, cooked for ages in its own black liquor; figs and honey. The Real Greek restaurant in Hoxton market is a fine advertisement for the soft excellence of good Greek cooking, which makes you instantly forget the hardness of kebab-shop pitta and the rubberiness of taverna cheese. When he first opened his carpet-curtained doors two years ago, the chef, Theodore Kyriakou, caused a minor stir on the letters pages of the Daily Telegraph concerning the true nature of Greek food. Some Greek correspondents wrote in to say that Kyriakou's food was too fancy to be authentic. Kyriakou, however, says that he makes the food he was brought up on. In his cookbook, he suggests that "Real Greek" food stretches all the way back to the gastronome Archestratus, in the fourth century BC. But what did the ancient Greeks really eat? One can't help feeling that, whatever it was, it was unlikely to be as nice as what you get from Kyriakou's kitchen.

In Sir Alfred Zimmern's immortal judgement, the Attic dinner of classical Greece consisted of two courses, "the first a kind of porridge and the second a kind of porridge". Like all great aphorisms, it is too neat to be entirely true, and too witty to be entirely false. It is true that the Greeks prized frugality in eating and contrasted their own simplicity with the spiced food of the supposedly decadent Persians. Greeks were, moreover, very dependent on barley-meal, and often they made it into a kind of soft dough mixed with milk; many paupers may indeed have eaten barley mush followed by barley mush for dinner - and that's if they were lucky. Another kind of porridge, called kykeon, is mentioned by Homer. Kykeon, which was rather a liquid food (or a solid drink, depending on how you look at it), contained white cheese and possibly honey, although we can't be sure how it was made. It was taken from a cup and seems to have been richer than barley porridge. None the less, the citizen-diners of Athens would have been deeply insulted by the claim that all they ate was porridge. In fact, "porridge-eaters" was the name the Greeks reserved for their barbarian neighbours, the Romans. Greek men proudly called themselves "bread-eaters".

Wealthy dinners, began, as they do at the Real Greek, with a basket filled with different shapes of bread. Greek bakers were famous for their inventive loaves, such as the mushroom-shaped boletus or the plaited streptice. With a kind of Aristotelian reasoning, meals were divided into that which was bread and that which was not bread. That which was not bread - opson - could include almost anything: cheese, olives, vegetables, meat and all kinds of fish. (Archestratus was very keen on fresh tuna, which he cooked with a little oregano in vine leaves.)

In Athens, the opson, or not-bread, increasingly came to include lots of little bits and pieces, relishes (paropsides), to be picked at by each guest - in other words, something very like modern meze. Non-Athenian Greeks sometimes responded to this mixture of small plates with dismay. One observer, Lynceus, said of the Athenian dinner: "While I am eating this, another is eating that; and while he is eating that, I have made away with this. What I want, good sir, is both the one and the other, but my wish is impossible . . . Such a layout as that may seem to offer variety but is nothing at all to satisfy the belly." You don't have to look far to find those who feel exactly the same frustration with plates of mezedes - just so much fidgety finger food when what you want is a good square meal.

The fundamentals of Greek eating were then, as now, simple: bread, olives (and oil), grapes (and wine), figs, honey and cheese. This is the kind of food that needs no cooking, and which symbolised the restrained civic values of Solon's republic, without being as self-flagellatingly nasty as the patriotic black broth of Sparta. Then, as now, Greeks worried that this simplicity might become corrupted. In the fourth century BC, Antiphanes wrote about the new cuisine: "Do you see what things have come to? Bread, garlic, cheese, maza [meze] - those are healthy foods, but not these salted fish, these lamb chops sprinkled with spices, these sweet confections and these corrupting pot roasts." Doubtless there are those who feel the same about the Real Greek. But real or not, it is infinitely preferable to those authentically British tavernas, where a Greek dinner all too often consists of two courses: the first, a kind of oily dip; and the second, a kind of slimy kebab - instead of porridge followed by porridge, we get grease followed by grease.

The Real Greek, 15 Hoxton Market, London N1 (020 7739 8212)

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Blessed are the pure in heart